In my fashionably late, one-step-behind-the-pop-culture-craze pattern, I finally watched "Waiting for Superman," the documentary that was simultaneously praised by some education reformers and charter school advocates and shunned by teacher's unions and public school teachers across the country. I was expecting to be incensed, but instead I just felt empty as the final credits began to roll. Really? That's it? These are the big education reform secrets we've all been waiting to hear?
The film proposes no solutions and provides a great deal of no-brainer statistics which it uses haphazardly to show the audience that gasp...yes, aspects of our public school system are at best, flawed, and at worst, broken...and double gasp, some charter schools are more successful (in terms of standardized testing scores, dropout rates, etc.) than their public school counterparts. Well, actually, according to the film only 1 in 5 charters are more successful but still... The only solution offered up by the film to students and parents of color, families living in poverty or near "dropout factory" feeder schools, or to any urban or suburban family that wants "options" for their child's education - enter them in a charter school lottery and then cross your fingers. Frankly, I'm more than a little bewildered by the entrepreneurial success of Bill Gates after seeing his thinking and creative problem-solving when it comes to education. Please.
I started my career in a successful suburban charter school and was lucky enough to break into the profession (pre-NCLB) with no teaching license or student teaching experience. I credit my first three years at this charter school for a number of things: my commitment to the profession (still working in the field 10 years later); the opportunity to flounder, experiment and eventually refine my practice; a group of colleagues I'm proud to call my friends to this day; capped class sizes that allowed me to get to know each of my students as individuals and thereby taught me what I consider to be the single most important tool a teacher has - rapport and "kidwatching" (knowing your learners inside and out); and the power of what's possible when parents partner with teachers inside and outside the classroom. I will never forget where I came from, and as such, I will never paint charters (or any other schooling structure) in a black and white or good vs. bad paradigm. Charters can be innovative, successful, nurturing places where students succeed. So can public schools. They can also fail miserably. (You don't often hear about the "dark side" of KIPP, but trust me, there is one). So can public schools. Almost a decade after entering my first classroom as a teacher, I'm now fortunate to be a part of a large, diverse, suburban district and a member of a teacher's union. I reap the benefits of district level professional learning, resources for a range of needs across departments, unified school improvement plans, curricular and pedagogical supports and salary and insurance benefits that small charters often can't offer.
Having lived in both worlds I can agree with the filmmakers on two things - good teachers do matter/make a difference and poverty should not be synonymous with the the achievement gap. But just like the parents and students who were waiting on the edge of their seats, nail biting, tears welling in the corners of their eyes as the lottery slots began to disappear and the odds of their number being called dwindled, I too was waiting. Waiting for the film to show me more heroes - the teachers that can and do make a difference and how they do it, the principals (beyond Geoffrey Canada and the KIPP Founders) whose leadership defies all of the barriers put in place by bureaucracies and systems and lack of resources and struggling neighborhoods and on and on. I was waiting for solutions to a problem far too complex to be tackled by a few case study examples of successful charter schools, an ambitious filmmaker, and special interests (i.e. Gates) with no real expertise in education. I was waiting...for some answers and creative solutions. The film revisited the problems we see in headlines everyday around the achievement gap, U.S. students lagging behind globally, and the struggles of a complex, multi-layered public schooling system. What the film didn't do is offer any feasible alternative, admitting to audiences, just like so many well-intentioned reformers, that it bit off far more than it could chew in 102 minutes.
So, if you want to be incensed, watch "Inside Job." "Waiting for Superman," will simply leave you waiting...for more.